Tuesday, October 30, 2012

fear and loathing in the driver's seat

the endless loop of a municipal bus driver's route is enough to drive one mad.  this sisyphean task is almost interesting the first few times, but the eventual redundancy of the route, meaningless "good morning"s and countless explanations of the fare structure pounds the senses so dull, it makes an opium-den look perky.  add the occasional raving, psychopath's behavior and the frequent raging, sociopath's driving that surrounds a typical bus driver and little room is left for sanity.  as if the cultural hostility towards the bus weren't enough, the anti-transportation folks exhibit street-level hostility when they drive, honking when the bus makes a stop, cutting it off when it tries to merge back in and passing with dangerous speed and expeditious intent nullified by a red light or the stop sign at the next intersection.

coping with all this hostility is primarily achieved by taking the occasional power trip.  when people don't give a handicapped person a seat, the bus driver pulls over.  when passengers don't stand far enough behind the yellow line, the driver stops again.  this one negotiating lever is all it takes to go from being the shithead driving that hulking tank that's in everyone's way to god.  the peer pressure that coerces the sober into drug use can not compare to the rage an entire bus can bring down on someone who holds up the already slow and stop-filled trip.  bus drivers have little in their repertoire other than this to whip pesky bus riders into shape.  luckily, its use is rarely needed.

another primary coping mechanism is commiserating with riders.  thanks to the "unnecessary conversation with driver is prohibited" sign, i always worry that the weaving in and out of rush hour traffic takes too much concentration and discussion of which toys a particular rider is buying for his child for the party in the park their entire extended family of 60 is coming to will cause an accident.  as yet, no such misfortune has happened while i've been riding.  the only time i've had to get off a bus and wait for a replacement to show up was when the wheelchair lift strained too hard to lift an obese rider and prevented the door from shutting.

Friday, October 26, 2012

fear and loathing of greed

it was the early 80s.  unadulterated greed was sweeping the country in unprecedented fashion and those who weren't good at it were being dispatched into unemployment, poverty and homelessness with ruthless efficiency.  urban cores all throughout the country were decimated by job losses brought on by ever-cheaper offshore labor.  those good at being greedy celebrated and flaunted their status, snorting enough cocaine to keep the cartels' armories better stocked than the colombian government's.  this drug-addicted wealthy class and an otherwise idle lower class busying themselves supplying the wealthy addicts combined for more violence than the u.s. had seen on its own soil since the civil war.  amazingly, the violence was contained almost exclusively to the suppliers.

the initial currency for the costs of this class warfare appeared to be inner-city, lower class lives.  it became clear later that the economic experiments being conducted here had spread all throughout the globe and infected all facets of life.  the iran-contra scandal displayed the immense international reach of this purest greed ever conceived, a gigantic machine chewing whole countries up and spitting them out with a smile on its face and a wink in its eye.  sons were selling out fathers and brothers, even mothers and sisters to get in on the fancy clothes, hard charging parties and sheer euphoria of seeing some number on a slip of paper from the broker get ever larger, convinced the consequences were inconsequential.

as a child in his formative years, i couldn't get over just how uninteresting it all appeared.  how did so much money lead to so little taste?  the clothes, the yachts, the hair, the golf courses, the jewelry, interviews with robin leach, it all screamed of an early retirement gone wrong, one of imaginations so starved in the pursuit of wealth that inspiration for how to spend newfound idle time came only from elderly grandparents.  i had no interest in any of this, a life polished so clean that feathered pubic hair sounded plausible next to ass bleaching.
Every Time I Tried to Windmill
while most kids were rebelling against their parents, i was busy rebelling against all these fuckers who idolized "dynasty."  i would collect junk from construction sites, piling them in a box in the garage, treasuring them for some eventual use my genius would uncover.  i would skateboard through tunnels my friends told me were storm drains, without being able to shake the feeling they might have been for sewage.  i thought breakdancing and graffiti were the most mind-blowing art forms ever created, my injury-addled attempts cementing the rock steady crew's place in my hero pantheon.  and while it was obvious the "dynasty" lovers had no moral code, none of them declared their atheism as proudly as i did.  i'm sure the irony of a chinese boy virtually practicing communism while growing up in a family moved to nebraska to escape it wasn't lost on everyone.  in this drive to find the most despised things, i found them in the usual places greed detested, places of government -- libraries, parks, schools, streets and, of course, public transportation.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

fear and loathing of divorce

it was lincoln public schools's 1985 winter break.  already disadvantaged by poor english and being of color in snow white nebraska, my mother was spending this normally festive time alone.  in one of many common but strange twists divorce proceedings take, the parent that "wins" joint custody weekdays, already relegated to most of the responsibility and little of the fun of child-rearing, gives up holidays.  so there i was, in my father's tan/gold ford station wagon, making the seemingly endless journey to his brother's and my five cousins' house in texas, cutting through kansas and oklahoma too fast to stop and look for twisters, but not so fast dwight eisenhower's memorial would be passed up.

The Cornhusker Lone Star Express, my dad's 1976 Ford Gran Torino wagon
despite being alone in a cold house, i'm certain my mother had the thermostat set to 60F or lower.  one other cruel twist of divorce proceedings is that the honor of monthly mortgage payments is considered an asset.  while my mother could live in the house and technically owned it, the salary of a single mother whose only previous work in english was managing a restaurant simply could not sustain the expense of it.  we eventually moved out, but not before every trick in the book was employed in an attempt to hang on.  while slightly uncomfortable, stretching a dollar became kind of a fun game, one that led my mother to actually use the city bus stop in front of our house that my father had only spoke of using.

we later found out much of the time we thought my mom was alone, she had actually hopped on a greyhound bus and gone to visit her brother and his family in the chicago area.  though she wanted to keep it a secret, she underestimated just how deeply every aspect of her life could be infected by inquisitive children.  when we'd call on the weekends, there was no answer.  if we had forgotten something and went home to get it, she was not there.  once, i asked about greyhound when a commercial came on during a football game.  my mom simply knew too much.  whether out of necessity or admiration, i would follow in her footsteps years later.

no one thinks twice about a college kid hopping a bus to get home for holidays or occasional weekend visits.  students are poor and young folks are always up for an adventure.  on those trips, covering four states in just a few hours as can only be done in new england, i came to understand why people thought it odd my mom had taken such buses voluntarily and so often.  the stations in new haven, bridgeport and numerous villages and towns in between looked like they were recently converted homeless shelters.  looking at such places certainly conjured imaginary danger in every dark corner.  only seasoned riders realized the subterfuge.

beggars, homeless, vagrants, transients and scum have no business harassing bus riders.  forcefully repossessing a rider's ticket to white plains was hardly worth the risk of jail time.  wallets and purses usually hold little money and bus riders are always collected in packs, scattering once a trip is over, but well aware that defense of each other was imperative to survival.  also, it's no secret that many riders are graduates of the hard knock life themselves, too hardened to be afraid and too savvy to fall for tricks.

despite having navigated this web of danger numerous times on the east coast, i bought into car culture when i moved to l.a.  public transportation, the story goes, gets you nowhere you want to go and even when it does, does so slowly.  it's difficult to reconcile this with equally horrific tales of traffic.  was l.a. packed so dense people simply couldn't move?  had smog fried everyone's brains?  or were people just so charismatic and magnetic, no one ever wanted to move away from others quickly?

answering none of these questions, i purchased a bmw.  the acceleration was excellent.  the handling exquisite.  really shallow women in the bad parts of town flocked to it.  and after a year of driving the damn thing, i no longer cared.  like every other vehicle i ever dared call my own, it needed to be fed, groomed, cared for, registered, insured and housed.

somewhere between those long rides in my dad's station wagon, my mom' frugality and frequent greyhounding and my own experience owning a car, i really had a very difficult time seeing what all the fuss was about over driving.  every freedom it affords comes with shackles of a different variety.  each second saved, another spent wondering what the fucker in front of you means by leaving their left blinker on.  every relationship nurtured in private leaving ten public sociological observations unmade.  driving has its place, but i'll be damned if i fall for its entrapment blindly.

Friday, October 19, 2012

fear and loathing of downtown

skid row and the homeless are a small part of the collection of scum that frequents downtown.  though dangerous and projecting an unpleasant presence at times, they are avoidable and predictable.  the really insidious scum occupy the bank buildings, institutes of government, and law and insurance offices.  they greet you with a smile, peddling services they call "essential" while using scraps of paper and computer transactions to suck the life out of people.  they dress well and are expert at putting people at ease, making sure they promote just the right level of fear first, lest the innocent bunnies not know what kind of deadly risks they're taking.  outside their offices, this courtesy tends not to be exercised so carefully.  after all, what's in it for them?  being courteous to a client might land a contract.  taking up two seats on a train or feigning a handicap merely reinforces a mutual contempt with the locals.

despite all this, downtown is the best melting pot los angeles has to offer.  the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing act is one everyone is happy to play.  the benefits are just too good.  there's so little risk and so much money, so little guilt and so much free time, so little responsibility and so much power.  anyone with an education can play, the rules written by the players so the sooner you get in, the more rules you get to write.  how can anyone resist?  this unbridled show of greed allows downtown to stand in stark contrast to the rest of los angeles.

the county of los angeles is a grand paradox.  by almost every measure, diversity is very high, people from all over the world collecting here to seek out dreams.  yet by almost every measure, los angeles is heavily segregated, huge racial majorities the norm in neighborhoods all over town.  watching the legions push off to their battle stations from these disparate places everyday, coalescing into this army of greed, is a grim reminder of predator and prey.  by its labyrinth of rules, the predators paralyze, neutralize and pacify their prey, promising to bring order to a chaos of their own creation, pushers in every sense, like arms dealers inciting war in some backwater banana republic to create demand for their product.  but like lions and tigers and leopards, predators are a necessary part of the landscape.  how else to weed out the weak?  how else would this train i'm writing from get built?  and how else do you keep a restless population occupied when basic needs, food and housing, only demand a quarter of them work?  with too much free time, people revert to their animal states, a healthy occasional exercise; but when guns, knives and hundreds of horses under a hood are so readily available, it's not long before prolonged reversions turn into true chaos.

of late, the sanitizing forces of the gold line have begun invading downtown.  dog-walking, posh pubs, art galleries and the general stench of trust fund backed lifestyles, failed creative projects and all, are everywhere.  it's like the kids from the privileged parts of the west side grew up and needed a change of scenery, volunteering as refugees.  they didn't realize being a refugee is uncomfortable, so they took their cool and convinced developers to provide them with new fortresses where moats made of concierge desks, paid armed security and gated underground parking keep the unwanteds out until they're needed as extras.  they also didn't realize the food and entertainment were a bit different, so they convinced the city to build them new playgrounds where concrete and advertising made sure others wouldn't linger while the chosen were resting in their loft-fortresses.  slowly, surely, they are realizing they didn't want a change of scenery at all, but somewhere their parents were too afraid to go so they could be left alone.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

fear and loathing of the gold line

even more than the religious zealots and people responsible for transit tv, the bus riders' union (bru) has my full contempt.  they happily oppose trains and even non-traditional buses like the orange line.  in doing so, they've used the once-sharp charge of racism so much that it's now dulled to the point of being completely ignored.  they even toss discretionary riders aside if it means any money spent on anything other than buses.  buses are universally regarded as the worst category of an otherwise worthy service.  they're endured out of necessity, a sacrifice of imagination, a plague on already-rageworthy traffic.  yet the bru worships this beast, always pushing expansion of its domain.  i say "fine!" but only if every bru officer is forced to utilize every expansion of bus service they push for two months, one before the change and one after, get them out of their suv's so they can see what they're really doing to the world.  unfortunately, bru's successful lawsuit against the mta didn't include this in the settlement, though a straitjacket was put around train projects for over a decade.

a year or two before this straitjacket's removal date, the mta started stretching its legs.  almost every pipe dream that anyone with a black leather jacket had come up with in the past twenty years was in the planning stage.  one that actually got pushed through while the straitjacket was being worn was the gold line.  i settled in near one of the stations and rode this fairy-tale line everywhere i could.

it was absurd.  the trains were so clean.  the stations displayed flea-market-quality art like it was a goddamn museum.  the ticket machines actually worked and even took credit cards.  signs with shadow boxes and childish pictographs imitated the internet.  after riding the damn thing for a few weeks, i felt so sanitized, i was sure disease was imminent.  after all, immune systems need exercise.  all that hand sanitizer and visor-as-welding-mask activity just lowers defenses for exposure that such petty measures only delay.  luckily, while away from the gold line, i surrounded myself with enough scum to keep my immune system on its toes.

some malcontent locals would complain that the quality of the train wasn't high enough.  if i'm ever in a room with one of them, my opening argument would be "IT'S TOO DAMN CLEAN, YOU FUCKER!  WE'RE GONNA MANUFACTURE A GODDMAN SUPERBUG THAT'LL MAKE US ALL DROOL BLOOD.  are you a  FUCKING VAMPIRE? goddammit! WHERE'S MY ETHER!?"  when i imagine this debate, that's my closing argument too, that is, if i still haven't found my ether.

Friday, October 12, 2012

fear and loathing of the blue line

when evening rush hour hits the blue line, the commuters are greeted by a tijuana convenience store.  the parasites come out to feed on weary office workers whose natural defenses have been worn down by a day of staring at computer screens and scheming to do the absolute minimum required.  in this state, there is an insatiable urge for miniature, crunchy, turd-shaped cornstuff covered in toxic-colored orange powder.  it's only through fear of not knowing where these phosphorescent orange turds come from that keeps me from such temptation.  did they fall off a truck?  stolen?  baked at home and fraudulently packaged?  one could never be sure.

another side effect of this weakened state is a heightened sense of guilt.  no matter how much fun avoiding responsibility can be, the very act of it strips away the survival instinct.  beggars read this on the riders' faces like an open book and demand penance.  even the blind man knows pulling one of his plastic eyes out of his skull makes the riders realize just how easy they have it.  hapless children bring even more hapless puppies on board to exact their toll.  and the least imaginative just utter, "spare some change?" something everyone knows everyone else can do, but no one wants to, sparking a game of chicken driven by guilt.  in a strange twist, the weakened who fork over the change scorn the strong.

the most successful of these professional riders are the musicians.  they provide a service, whether you like it or not.  the accordion player transports people to gay paree.  the folk guitarist sells the free-love lifestyle that everyone wants, but only hippies dare live.  and the family with their guitar and bucket percussion provide the actual acid trip, turning "come together" into something even a crackhead could love.

when the sun goes down, another transformation takes place on the blue line.  in place of the plain folk too scared to dare the sheriff's into checking them for fare are mobs of youth too bored and too poor to do anything but.  despite being loud and appearing to have no particular destination, these youths are no more dangerous than the day crowd.  though possessing overwhelming numbers, their interest in mating exceeds that of mischief, much like their san fernando valley counterparts.  lucky for me, my age and complete lack of youth-cool keeps me off their radar.  there's nothing quite as unpleasant as warding off unwanted advances from what may as well be another species.  to me, the words "jeezy," "gaga," "young" and "lady" used in the same sentence must refer to lewd acts gone terribly wrong.  while i'm sure this happens often amongst these youths, it's clear that's not what they were talking about.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

fear and loathing of teenagers

riding a bus in l.a. in the mid-afternoon is a pedophile's dream come true.  there are so many teens trying to get impregnated, even the most outlandish fetishist could be satisfied, but particularly ones with a preference for big, olive-complected girls.  rather than hire their own bus drivers who may give in to the temptation of barely pubescent girls, lausd lets the whole bus-riding public loose on them instead.  hell, they even encourage it with student discounts.

the wanton display of flesh is something you'll get in any hot climate, but it reaches a frenzy if hollywood producers are in the mix.  the promise of fame pulls helpless girls in from all over the world, but nowhere does that drumbeat pulse quite as incessantly as in the san fernando valley, close enough to hollywood that dreams look real, but far enough that shattered ones, littering every motel and production office, aren't in plain sight.  that a conveyor belt of fresh meat from the midwest primed for hollywood's predation makes journeying to the san fernando valley unnecessary for producers deters these girls not.  they are seeking attention and will not fail.

on occasion, when i got to leave work early, i bore witness to this insanity.  somehow, all the single moms with screaming babies and years of premature despair written on their faces didn't act as a deterrent.  in fact, it just emboldened the boys, the complete absence of fathers assuring them no one would hold them accountable to any of their own eventual spawn.  though i no longer understood the specific language, it was clear that the mini-skirts, hot pants and bare midriffs were just the first step in daily mating rituals, ones in which the politeness and civility of dinner and a movie were punished by more base instincts requiring just 5 minutes and some privacy.

Friday, October 5, 2012

fear and loathing of public transportation

despite the tales of problematic and damaged gene pools running amok on the trains, it turned out to be nothing like the carnage of driving on the west side of town.  it was so comfy, riders could practically stretch out and no one ever honked trying to get around you.  compared to the crowded masses i'd stood amongst on the east coast, the trains in l.a. felt like pure luxury.  even though my woman complained that it took twice as long, i held steady.  this little piece of nirvana had convinced me that the place where scientology and pentacostolism were born might have something to offer the world after all.

after the novelty of arriving to work without the urge to bark insanity at my coworkers wore off, i had periods of occasional doubt about my decision, like the skinny, tall white guy with the three foot afro.  the sight of a 6'6" walking, licorice-flavored lollipop even made the sober people double-take.  and then there was the black woman who had no business dressing like a poor impersonation of the supremes in broad daylight that accosted me in korean.  i hadn't had acid in years, but that certainly brought the feeling back.  seeing these freaks was actually rather comforting, knowing i wouldn't be singled out by law enforcement or other profilers for harassment.  no, the true test of my train-riding resolve arrived in two other forms.

religious zealots love a place where lots of people congregate.  bullhorns make sure everyone can hear you while no one can understand a word.  an entire stack of literature can be unloaded along with one's proselytitic guilt in mere minutes.  such efficiency made socializing with fellow proselytizers difficult, so was avoided like birth control.  when intercepting decent passers-by got boring, the preaching would board the train.  nothing makes me quite as uneasy as being around recent converts, still so low in the pecking order that they're forced into situations where repeated rejection was inevitable.  negative feedback leads to backsliding, which leads to hijacking and armed robbery.  occasionally, naive commuters challenge the zealots.  this is a recipe for pure entertainment.  two sides totally indignant and emboldened by each others' complete blindness shouting with illogic that no one can follow. it's almost as good as presidential election coverage.

another test of my train-riding resolve came when they installed tv's on the buses.  as if my naps weren't being interrupted enough by the preachers, the bus itself had to blare video at me.  i learned who rihanna was.  i found out that bus riders love bruce willis more than tracy morgan.  i also realized that multiple choice trivia is remarkably challenging for children who can't read.  they preferred the pictures of galaxies and nebula, but preferred dancing to telemundo even more.  i was really starting to feel a kinship with people and it was driving me crazy.  tv's were being used in place of parenting at home and were reinforcing their pacifying role amongst the adults here on the bus.  i would occasionally imagine myself arguing at the top of my lungs with the tv just to give all the kind folks something real to be enamored by, but i had seen intolerance of such activity from a model minority before and didn't want to enter that scene.

as the weeks wore on, the volume kept drifting downward.  even a pacified underclass can kindly ask to have nap time restored.  more text-based programming was introduced, stuff that didn't need audio.

having experienced and conquered these two particular early tests of my bus-riding resolve, i settled in to a routine.  after a little trial and error, routes that didn't take quite as long were found; and i perfected the gentle art of bumming rides familiar to all carless people surrounded by cars.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

fear and loathing of 9/11

it was early 2002.  the country was scared shitless from 9/11 and doing it's best not to let on.  but it was useless.  any wild animal could tell our bouts of anger and bravado were nothing more than anxiety and insecurity.  in a frenzy of erecting even higher walls in the police state, senseless fear was battered into every corner of the country.  it was obvious the terrorists had won.  while the president was telling us they hated us for our freedoms, he was summarily taking them away.  a flight was now a bigger hassle than visiting an inmate and being of middle eastern descent was criminalized.  they finally figured out a bunch of saudis did it.  then they figured out oil money was instrumental in funding the whole affair.  that's when i decided to stop buying gasoline.

(easter egg when embiggened)

i couldn't follow through on this decision overnight, of course.  living in the county where richard nixon was revered and an airport was named after a cowboy actor meant public transportation was just barely sufficient for the help to get to and from santa ana in service of wealthy living.  to bike, i would have had to take highways and endure stares of condescension from the suv's.  the scorn car culture heaps on bicyclists is shrugged off easily enough, but the constant threat of road rage that i knew the locals were capable of made biking impossible.  it would have been like trying to survive thunderdome with nothing more than your bare hands.

fate dealt me a lucky hand in my aspiring boycott.  my employer was getting hit hard by the exodus of money from the tech industry.  part of its parachute was jettisoning me into unemployment.  i didn't provide enough lift apparently, as the place crashed a few months later, not that i cared anymore.  i decided to try my fate in the big city of angels. my apartment was close to a train station and so was my new job.  well, there was a bus ride involved, but there's nothing tamer than the populace of the san fernando valley.  even the scum here was predictable and easy to fight off with kind words.  usually, "have you taken your meds?" was enough to stop a hostile approach in its tracks.

and so my metro patronage began.

fear and loathing intro

it saddens me to report that after ten years of riding and well over 100,000 miles logged on the mta, i will no longer be patronizing this fair city's wonderful public transportation system.  i have all the same excuses every other discretionary-turned-non rider has.  time, personal situation, means, etc, though the real clincher is the availability of cheap solar panels and electric cars.  i may return to public transportation some day because even a guilt-free drive can be an unpleasant one.  nonetheless, i've been holding back some writing.  this coming month will feature this writing, work i hope will punctuate this here blog perfectly.  whether this becomes true or not, i think you'll find the work a change of pace, hopefully both interesting and worthwhile.